Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno. 2009.

The subject of this documentary - Clouzot’s unrealized film, Inferno - is mesmerizing and, for me personally, could not be more involving. The contours of the story will be familiar to anyone who’s read about some of Orson Welles’ fiascos, or to people who have seen the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, though that film, I’d say, ends up deflating its subject, killing it with overstatement - exactly what this film blessedly doesn’t do. 

Given an “unlimited budget” by the film’s American backers, Clouzot indulges his every whim, getting so thoroughly lost, it seems, in his own fantasies that you’d almost think he’d intended to all along. It should be said that there is no particular flare in the documentary’s filmmaking itself - the subject and the imagery (from the 185 extant cans of film) make it what it is - but in this one respect it is brilliant: it leaves the obsessive quality of the film Clouzot was making deliciously underanalyzed, letting the imagery speak for itself. Watching it, you know without being told that it could never all be put together in a single film. But by the end, somehow, you feel you’ve experienced the film. Fragmented art is an experience too. It’s useful to be reminded of art’s essential slipperiness.

One crew member says something near the end of the film that stuck in my head because, well, it’s the whole film boiled down to a phrase. He says something about how what he learned from watching Clouzot, watching him follow this darkening course through the last days of a film that everyone knew was collapsing, was that you had to “see your madness through.” When analyzed in any sense outside of obsession, this simply doesn’t hold up, but there’s a poetic truth to it that is often instinctually observed: self-destruction is often the most attractive, most artistic substitute for creation.

Willem de Kooning: The Cat’s Meow

How many times have I had the same thought (about other arts)…

And then there is, of course, always, and inevitably, this spume of poetry that’s just blowing out of the sulfurous flue-holes of the earth. Just masses of poetry. It’s unstoppable, it’s uncorkable. There’s no way to make it end.

If we could just—just stop. For one year. If everybody could stop publishing their poems. No more. Stop it. Just—everyone. Every poet. Just stop.

But of course that’s totally unfair to the poets who are just starting out. This may be their “wunderjahr.” This may be the year that they really find their voice. And I’m telling them to stop? No, that wouldn’t do.

But wouldn’t it be great? To have a moment to regroup and understand? Everybody would ask, Okie dokie, what new poems am I going to read today? Sorry: none. There are no new poems. And so you’re thrown back onto what’s already there, and you look at what’s on your shelves, that you bought maybe eight years ago and you think, Have I really looked at this book? This book might have something to it. And it’s there, it’s been waiting and waiting. Without any demonstration or clamor. No squeaky wheel. It’s just been waiting.

If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.

- Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist.

Cy Twombly died today at 83. 

Here’s a nice tribute to him by Jerry Saltz.

My hatred of bookwarp has almost grown into physical revulsion. I can’t stand the feeling, I can’t stand the way it looks, I can’t stand having books fall victim to spine disease as soon as I get them. My friend, when I mentioned this annoyance of mine, thought it must be a projection of some other (more serious) stress, so fierce was it and, you might say (but I wouldn’t), so disproportionate to its cause. I said, No, it’s really just this, whatever that says about me. I hate when this happens, always to my best books! I can only pray that a cure will soon be discovered.

This is awful. I draw the line at over-officious civic line drawing.

Miscellaneous links

An Atlantic writer bemoans the end of the serve and volley game in professional tennis. If you’ve been watching tennis recently, you’ll recognize this summation of the game as it’s played today:

"The end result is tennis as we currently know it: the occasional change-of-pace and/or desperation net rush, increasingly quaint amid long, grinding rallies that, ironically, can be just as dull and metronomic as the big serve shootouts they usurped. Heavy topspin shot. Heavy topspin return. Much grunting. Both players working to gain a marginal advantage, until someone uncorks a winner/error down the line or crosscourt."

The picture above is from an HBO documentary about the McEnroe / Borg rivalry. It’s title - not the most original thing you’ve ever heard: Fire and Ice. Also worth bemoaning is the recent dearth of headbands.

James Gleick (author of the recent The Information) gives a calm, non-apocalyptic lecture on the future of books (audio). A welcome relief from the shrillness with which this topic is usually discussed, by whichever camp. Definitely worth a listen.

"At the risk of being a biblionecrophiliac again, let me say that a dead-tree book is an example of “peak technology,” a tool ideally suited to its task. The book is like a hammer. Hammers can be tweaked and buried, but it will never go obsolete.”

"Most people have always been too busy for books. And still, here we are. Lately, this conversation has seemed to be all about the internet, and digital media. Personally, I’m a more or less happy citizen of the cyberspace. I’m not much for Facebook but sometimes I do twitter. I admit my tweets are not serving the cause of literature. They’re not even serving the cause of my next book. Literature is shapely and meditative. Cyberspace is formless and noisy. Literature is slow. Cyberspace operates at light speed. Books stand alone. Cyberspace is all about the connectedness. Cyberspace is hyperspace, where information is concerned. So, let me get out the crystal ball. Here’s what’s going to happen henceforth. Books will survive. I promise. You can take it to the bank. Books have a strange quality…

Meanwhile, even big authors are running for the escape hatches.

The website
won a Webby last week, and I think it deserves it. What better way to waste one’s time than making ridiculous, ridiculously inventive objects.

Letters of Note is a blog I keep going back to. Here’s a letter from director Michael Powell to his biggest fan, Martin Scorsese, congratulating him on his Goodfellas script. What it must have meant to Scorsese we can only imagine. Another post there not long ago: Mark Twain to Walt Whitman, on Whitman’s birthday.

This interview with David Foster Wallace was making the rounds a couple of weeks ago. The anxieties are all familiar if you’re of a certain generation, or if you’re a reader of Wallace. The voice of a generation tag always sounds overblown, but was there anyone else who could write about those anxieties and make as many people say That’s exactly how I feel? I think Jonathan Franzen is doing his best to take up the mantle. I don’t know exactly what’s lacking there. It’s not sincerity, I don’t think. 

The Atlantic is tailoring itself to keep me, little old me, reading. How else to explain this feature on the notebooks of artists and designers, which is brazen Saint Passionate-bait (see previous notebook posts).

There’s a good, short interview with Enrique Vila-Matas at the Paris Review (not a “Paris Review Interview” as such)…

Never Any End to Paris uses your youth in Paris to explore ideas of creativity, influence, and identity. The narrator is a writer whose facts and dates are similar to yours, though—I think—he both is and isn’t you. Do you think art requires certain compromises with reality?

Which reality? If you mean the conventional “consumerist reality” that rules the book market and has become the preferred milieu for fiction, this doesn’t interest me at all. What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures. There remains to be written a great book, a book that would be the missing chapter in the development of the epic. This chapter would include all of those—from Cervantes through Kafka and Musil—who struggle with a colossal strength against all forms of fakery and pretense. Their struggle has always had an obvious touch of paradox, since those who so struggled were writers that were up to their ears in fiction. They searched for truth through fiction. And out of this stylistic tension have emerged marvelous semblances of the truth, as well as the best pages of modern literature.

Terraria is the new 2D Minecraft (let’s admit it, a rip-off with a few extra things thrown in). For people who can’t do without fighting things in games, it apparently has a richer vocabulary of weapons and monsters than Minecraft. Personally, I think it loses something being in 2D, but the fun of designing buildings is still there. People love to put their own creativity to use. That was the genius of Minecraft - it was flexible enough that it was limited only by the user’s creativity and the time they had to put into it. Terreria, with a different visual aesthetic, follows the same principle - the Lego principle. Put simply, it’s fun to make something and then stand back and look at it. It’s also fun to see what other people are doing with the same set of tools.

(I don’t know who to give credit to for these handsome buildings. I just picked them from a Terraria photo feed on Imgur).

Edward Hopper: Hotel Window.

There’s a tendency to make Hopper into something quaint and kindly and to ignore the times when he’s not. He’s not allowed a trace of Europeanness. Documentaries smother him in big band jazz. But some of his pictures have an eerie side to them and the gaze, while I’d never say it wasn’t often compassionate, hardly strikes one as benign when it peers into glary rooms and contracts big geometric spaces into tunnels. Hotel Window is a good example of what I mean. A hotel room that feels as big as Grand Central Station but a Grand Central Station that somehow feels claustrophobic. All that spaciousness comes to point at the woman, who looks away as if there were anyone else in the room that could be the object of attention. And being lit like that, she must wish she were out in the anonymous dark.

Office at Night.

In Office at Night, the light again seems over-bright, like stage lighting. The unpleasantness is not just a function of the light, though, or of the not-quite-right angles; it has something to do with the guilelessness of the people spied on. It’s an embarrassment to be found serving time so innocently and in so exposed a place, to have been caught in the act of doing nothing much again. These two couldn’t have an affair if their lives depended on it. They couldn’t shut a door or window, couldn’t turn off a light.

Eleven AM.

Similarly affectless, the woman in Eleven AM, naked but for her shoes. Some people might see this as a touch of humour on Hopper’s part, but as she, like many of Hopper’s people, stares dreamily out the window (they’re often oversize, as if to show people for cowards), there seems something more pathetic about it. Is that as close as she could get to going out?

Night Windows.

Compare and Contrast (15)

1. Stephen Dunn: The Imagined.
2. Shakespeare: Sonnet 138.

The Imagined

If the imagined woman makes the real woman
seem bare-boned, hardly existent, lacking in
gracefulness and intellect and pulchritude,
and if you come to realize the imagined woman
can only satisfy your imagination, whereas
the real woman with all her limitations
can often make you feel good, how, in spite
of knowing this, does the imagined woman
keep getting into your bedroom, and joining you
at dinner, why is it that you always bring her along
on vacations when the real woman is shopping,
or figuring the best way to the museum?

                     And if the real woman

has an imagined man, as she must, someone
probably with her at this very moment, in fact
doing and saying everything she’s ever wanted,
would you want to know that he slips in
to her life every day from a secret doorway
she’s made for him, that he’s present even when
you’re eating your omelette at breakfast,
or do you prefer how she goes about the house
as she does, as if there were just the two of you?
Isn’t her silence, finally, loving? And yours
not entirely self-serving? Hasn’t the time come,

                     once again, not to talk about it?

Sonnet 138

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies, 
That she might think me some untutor’d youth, 
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties. 
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young, 
Although she knows my days are past the best, 
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue: 
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d. 
But wherefore says she not she is unjust? 
And wherefore say not I that I am old? 
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust, 
And age in love loves not to have years told: 
   Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
   And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

Another good blog, if you’re interested in design, typography, or books and magazines - Fonts in Use. If it sounds geeky, you should know that it really is. Commenters debate arcane matters of kerning and font “openness” as though there were a lot at stake. And that’s why I like it. Anyway, that’s where I learned about this beautiful, very limited (265) Arion edition of Moby Dick, published in 1978/79…

All text in the book was hand-set in metal type (one character at a time) and letterpress printed on custom hand-made paper. To accompany the text throughout, 100 stunning wood engravings were cut by renowned printmaker and illustrator Barry Moser. Due to its high level of craftsmanship, the edition was limited to 265 copies, and is considered a masterpiece of modern bookmaking — named by the Grolier Club as one of the “100 Most Beautiful Books of the 20th Century”.

The typeface used for the main body type — Goudy Modern — has a rustic texture which matches both the story and illustrations perfectly. It also seems fitting that a typeface by such a quintessential American type designer like Frederic Goudy was used to set one of the most quintessential American novels.

To complement the body type, a set of large capitals were designed specifically for the book’s initial caps and titling. The stately face, aptly named Leviathan (not to be confused with H&FJ’sface of the same name), was designed by Charles Bigelow & Kris Holmes, of later Lucida fame. As the name implies, Leviathan was intended for very large sizes, where its sharp details and exaggerated flaring can really shine.

Considering the wide spectrum of writing styles that appear throughout Moby Dick, Hoyem’s typographic restraint is impressive. Using just one weight of one typeface, in only two sizes, he manages to compose most all of the story’s narration, technical documentation, asides, poetry, quotations, etc … not to mention administrative text like captions and folios. With a touch of Leviathan’s stylistic flair, the “just enough is more” typographic palette relies on smart typesetting to communicate the sometimes-complex hierarchy instead of a mess of weights and sizes.

I’m tempted to keep quoting (I’ve already quoted most of it) because, for a bibliophile or anyone with half an interest in design, it’s all really interesting. I encourage you to go and read the rest at the site.

Having the weakness for such things that I do, it’s going to be hard to resist the urge to spring for the newer trade edition of this book, as it will be for the Peter Mendelsund-designed edition of Kafka’s books, whenever it comes out (June or July, apparently). This edition was the subject of another post at Fonts in Use. I might not have noticed the font, or thought twice about it if I had, but it was interesting to hear Mendelsund’s reasons (excuses, some designers might say), for using the down-at-heel “Times” font…

My associations with Times are two-fold, and contradictory. On the one hand, Times puts me in mind of Microsoft, MS Windows, Word (with which Times is distributed and is most people’s intro to the font), which in turn makes me think of nefarious organizations and the powerlessness of the individual in the face of the large, uncaring, politico-corporate entity. On the other hand, as the universal default face, it has an everyman-like humility to it. Kafka, I think, would approve.

The other font, the script, is based on Kafka’s own handwriting. I love those borders, too! Book fetishists, mark your calendars. 

Saint Passionate


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